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The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the musicology of record production

Jan Butler

University of Nottingham


If there was one person that I have to select as a living genius of pop music, I would choose Brian Wilson…. Pet Sounds must rank as one of the highest achievements in our genre.  [1]

So said George Martin, producer of the Beatles, when interviewed for the Pet Sounds Sessions box set released in 1996 by Capitol records.  This view of Brian Wilson, the composer, producer, arranger, and vocalist of The Beach Boys, is the one that is now accepted today, and is often promulgated through media such as the feature-length documentary, Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile, released in 2004.  The story is usually as follows:  Brian Wilson is a tragic genius who, through his experiments with record production, inspired the Beatles to make Sgt. Pepper before burning out and scrapping his next eagerly awaited album, Smile, then virtually disappeared from the music scene amidst tales of drugs and mental illness before his triumphant return and re-recording of Smile in 2004.  This narrative usually starts with the creation of Pet Sounds in 1966, a recording that now regularly appears at or near the top of lists of the greatest rock albums ever recorded.  

However, the contemporary reception of Pet Sounds differed sharply, ranging from rejection to confusion and at times celebration.  In this paper, I argue that the different reception in 1966 was due to the different institutional structure of the record industry at that time, a structure that allowed unprecedented freedom in the recording studio, but suffered from restricted institutions of reflexive aesthetic judgement.  The institutional support for making the transition from teen band to studio auteur was not in place at that time.  I would like to suggest that ultimately, it is that institutional support, and not solely the properties of the recording itself, that has given Pet Sounds the reputation that it currently enjoys.

In Keith Negus’s book, Producing Pop, he explains that the fundamental aim of everything that a record company does is to reduce the risk of a commercial flop when releasing a new recording.  For a recording to be a commercial success, it requires a market, and this market is not simply ‘out there’ waiting to receive new products; it has to be created.  According to Negus, writing in 1992, the current established method used to create a market for a recording, and thus ensure its commercial success, is the process of artist development. [2]  But in 1966, when Pet Sounds was released, the record industry was in a state of confusion when it came to the successful selling of rock music.  Studies by Peterson and Berger from 1971 onwards portray an industry in a state of flux starting in the early 1950s with the major American record companies at that time (RCA, Decca, Capitol and Columbia) fighting the independents for market share.  By 1963, a year after the Beach Boys had signed with Capitol, the majors dominated the charts, holding the top three single slots for the first time in a decade. [3]   The majors’ position was consolidated in 1964 by the British invasion of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, amongst others, all of whom were by then released on American major labels.  At this point, Capitol managed to stay in the top three largely through the success of recordings by the Beatles and the Beach Boys. [4]  

The secret of the majors’ success during this period of market turbulence was not artist development but instead, according to Peterson and Berger, a shift towards an entrepreneurial model of production.  Record companies at this time were split into three divisions: manufacture, sales and promotion, and production.  Manufacturing and sales and promotion remained relatively stable in varying market conditions, following similar procedures whatever recordings were produced.  This left the production division as the main market-driven variable.  Production was therefore the most loosely organised sector of the record industry allowing it to adapt according to a changing market, and the key to this adaptability was the entrepreneur producer.  The entrepreneur producer was given freedom to organise the various specialists (engineers, artists, freelance backing musicians etc) and equipment involved in making a recording, creating new combinations of the available resources to create, in the words of Peterson and Berger, “that combination of novelty and sameness that is a hit recording” [5].  The success or failure of an entrepreneur producer’s efforts was assessed according to a recording’s movements in the charts and amount of airplay, and producers were hired or fired accordingly [6].   In other words, rather than attempting to create markets through artist development, the majors depended on entrepreneur producers to minimise the chance of a recording’s being a commercial failure in the emerging rock era.

Brian Wilson was one of the first recording artists also to become an entrepreneur producer, dutifully recording three albums and at least four singles every year from 1962 for Capitol, most of which at least charted in the top ten [7].   The influence on Wilson of his label-mates the Beatles peaked in 1965 with the release of Rubber Soul, which made Wilson realise that “the record industry was getting so free and intelligent.  We could go into new things – string quartets, auto-harps and instruments from another culture.” [8]    With Capitol’s confidence stemming from his past hits, Wilson could work unencumbered in the studio, using the latest technology to create new sounds as he wished.  From this point, the so-called production race was on, and the result was Pet Sounds.  

Pet Sounds was recorded in 27 sessions spread over four months and using four different studios, each of which was selected for its distinctive sound, created through a combination of the physical design of each studio and the unique consoles and tape machines available.  Wilson recorded the instrumental backing track first, usually in one session, using the best freelance session musicians then working in Hollywood.  This use of session musicians instead of band or Beach Boys members, and the wide range of instrumentalists used, including bass harmonica and the theremin, was almost unheard of in rock at this time.  Wilson would work with musicians individually, singing or playing them the details of their part and experimenting with them to create the sound he wanted.  He would then experiment with the whole band, instructing them on their relative positions to their mikes, altering echo effects, which he recorded live, and further experimenting with details of rhythm and combinations of sounds before recording a take.  He would then record several takes until he was completely happy with every detail of the backing track.  

This method of experimenting in the studio and working with the musicians to help realise the sounds that he had imagined was unique at the time; a combination of mixing live and composing on the spot.  He recorded the backing tracks on three- or four-track tape machines, depending on which studio he was in.  This allowed him greater control over the balance of different instruments when he bounced them down to a single-track mono mix on another four-track recorder, or the eight-track recorder at Columbia studios, leaving the remaining three or seven tracks available for the vocals.  Thus, the instrumental track was ‘locked in’ long before the Beach Boys came into the recording studio.  

The vocals also took a long time to record, with the Boys learning their parts when they arrived at the studio.  The backing vocals were recorded with all the Beach Boys except Mike Love, who needed extra amplification, around one mike, and all the vocals, both lead and backing, were doubled for extra intensity of sound.  The vocals would then also be reduced down to one track and combined with the original instrumental track to create the mono master, which was then slightly compressed and equalised to give it a cohesive sound. [9] 

One particular song that exemplifies the result of the unusual recording techniques described above is the closing track of the album, ‘Caroline, No’, which was also released before the album was completed as the first Brian Wilson solo single, of which more below.  The song is sung in the first person, and is addressing a girl called Caroline who has changed as she has grown older, losing her ‘happy glow’ and cutting off her long hair.  It appears to be about lost innocence and the disillusionment that can come with time after the initial rush of love has passed.  The song opens with an unusual percussive effect, created by playing an upside down plastic water cooler bottle, then feeding the sound through an echo chamber to create strong reverb.  A gently undulating harpsichord and ukulele come in over a subtly syncopated bass line followed almost immediately by Brian Wilson’s sweetly mournful lead vocal.  The whole song was sped up to raise it by a semitone in order to make Brian’s voice sound younger and sweeter than it really is.  The melody line meanders with no clear distinction between verse and chorus, although it is in a basic strophic structure, with the refrain of ‘Caroline, No’ acting in place of a chorus.  The lack of dense Beach Boy vocal harmony is very noticeable.  The orchestration of the song becomes denser as it progresses, with the addition of guitars, saxophones, flute and bass flute.  It ends with the full ensemble playing an instrumental version of the opening verse, and as this fades out, the sound of a passing train and Wilson’s pet dogs wildly barking (created through a combination of a pre-recorded train and the dogs barking in the studio) fades in and out again to end the album.  This use of real-life sound effects on a rock album was also unheard of at this time. [10]   

Once the recording was completed, the band organised a cover for the album that gave little indication of their new musical direction, with a drab photo of the band with some goats at San Diego Zoo on the front, and pictures of both Brian Wilson in the recording studio and the band on their recent tour of Japan on the back, which show them wearing their distinctive striped shirt uniforms and samurai costumes, as can be seen below.

Pet Sounds album front cover:
 
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Pet Sounds album back cover
 
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Capitol executives were not pleased with the finished album. The sales department in particular were worried because the production, style and subject matter were so different from the established image of the Beach Boys, with their wholesome, ‘fun in the sun’ image.  The album was nevertheless released in America on May 16th, 1966.  Unfortunately, despite some glowing reviews amongst American music critics, it was, by the Beach Boys’ standards, a relative flop, peaking briefly at number ten on the album chart on 2nd July, and was the first Beach Boys record in three years not to go gold. [11] 

The relative failure of Pet Sounds in America at the time of its release reveals the unique problems that the record industry had with changes in record production and their inability to deal with it effectively.  Depending entirely on Wilson’s track record as a successful entrepreneur producer, Capitol failed to create a market for the Pet Sounds album.  This can partly be explained by the direct interchange of record companies’ sales and promotions divisions with the radio industry.  It was the producer, not the sales and promotions employees, whose job it was to package a recording, to commission or design the sleeve and organise liner notes, and sometimes to introduce the recording to sympathetic DJs to ensure that it received enough airplay. [12]  The promotion and sales department’s job was to take the finished product and ensure that it appeared on the radio and in record stores.  In research carried out in 1972, Paul M. Hirsch explains that cultural objects such as recordings could only reach consumers through gate-keepers in the mass-media who received objects to promote from the record industry.  The record industry’s problem was to persuade the gate-keeper, usually a radio DJ, that their particular product was worth promoting.  These gate-keepers were the crucial audience that the promotion and sales department were aiming at, and whatever succeeded in getting airplay was then imitated until, in Hirsch’s words, “the fad ha[d] run its course”. [13]

Earlier research in 1969 by Hirsch showed that a record company would only heavily promote records to gate-keepers that they already expected to be hits, using techniques including full-page advertisements in the trade press and personal appearances by the recording artists to create anticipation and demand for releases. [14]   The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album was treated this way, with promotional spots pre-recorded for radio stations by the band advertising the new album and its singles, and full-page advertisements in Billboard. [15]  These adverts, however, gave no indication of the new sound or direction of the Beach Boys, instead depending on their successful established image and track record of teen hits.  This can be seen in the following promo spots, improvised by the Beach Boys, that were given to radio stations to promote the first single released from the album, ‘Caroline, No’, which was described above.

Promo spot one opens with an old bar piano playing in the style of chase music from a silent film.  Mike Love interrupts:  “Just a second, Bruce, hold it.  Bruce…Bruce! Bruce, we want a little Top 40 sound for this thing….”.  Bruce, who we presume was playing the piano, promptly switches to a more ragtime-influenced vaudeville playing style.  Love continues, saying that he is speaking on behalf of all the Beach Boys and asking listeners to listen to Brian Wilson’s ‘Caroline, No’.  This is followed by a triumphant cadence on the piano, over which someone shouts, “Stop that Piano!” [16]

Promo spot two opens with a smashing noise, which continues sporadically in the background amidst muffled laughter from the group.  This time it is Carl Wilson who speaks, saying through suppressed giggles: “Well, we had our hands on it and broke it…”.  He goes on to introduce himself and laughs as he tells the listener that the Beach Boys are trying to reassemble the broken record for Brian so that it can be played on the radio.  We then hear a distant shout amidst the laughter of  “There’s the hole!”, then all the background sounds stop and the DJ repeats the moniker of the radio station.  The clip again closes with an old bar piano cadence similar to that in the previous promo spot. [17]

These promo spots are very similar in style to other Beach Boys promo spots up to this point, in which the band ‘goof around’ and depend on their names being recognised and the audience’s previous familiarity with the group rather than giving any indication of what the next single or album will be like. [18]  It would be easy for DJs and consumers to assume from these spots that the up-coming single would be in the familiar Beach Boys style, with upbeat surf-oriented lyrics, vibrant vocal harmonies and traditional five-piece band backing (drums, guitars, bass and singers).

This single was the first indication that the Beach Boys’ new sound was perhaps not going to be entirely successful, as it only reached number 32 in the charts.  To compensate for this, Capitol rushed out the ‘Sloop John B’ single, which pre-dated Pet Sounds by six months and gave little indication of the style of the upcoming album (although they did force Brian Wilson to include it on the Pet Sounds album after its success in the single charts, where it reached number two). [19]  Even at these first signs that the album may not be a huge commercial success, however, there was no attempt made in terms of marketing to reposition the Boys and their new sound towards the emerging hip rock market and its nascent underground rock press.  

Capitol reacted to the relative failure of the Pet Sounds album as they had reacted to the failure of ‘Caroline, No’, by rushing out a new album that reflected the band’s established style - the first Best of the Beach Boys album, released on 5th July, 1966.  The album soon outsold Pet Sounds, reaching number eight, and went gold very quickly.  The release of a ‘Best of’ album usually indicated the end of a band’s career, and signalled a withdrawal of support from Capitol for new Beach Boys product.  [20]  In other words, for Capitol, this particular fad had ‘run its course’.  This was entirely according to the norms of institutional organisation at that time, where the only adaptable element was production.  A record that did not sell was compensated for by one that probably would.  The methods for marketing remained unchanged.    

However, in Britain, Pet Sounds was a huge success.  Crucially, this success was not generated by Capitol.  Instead, it was driven by Derek Taylor, ex-publicist of the Beatles, whom the Beach Boys had personally hired in March 1966 in order to, in Brian Wilson’s words, “take them to a new plateau” [21].  Taylor arranged preview hearings of Pet Sounds for hip journalists and rock luminaries, including Lennon and McCartney.  In this way he tapped into the burgeoning rock press in England and successfully sold Brian Wilson as being a pop genius, creating a market for the album and the band in a way closer to the artist development departments described by Negus.  This technique of promoting the album was so successful that on the back of Pet Sounds and the ‘Good Vibrations’ single the Beach Boys were voted Top World Vocal Group in the NME poll that December, coming ahead of the Beatles in their own homeland. [22]  For a brief time, this positive perception of the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson continued in Britain and spread through to America’s rock press, a force that was just emerging when Pet Sounds was released, and which Capitol had not tapped into because there was as yet no institutional recognition of the rock press as a useful marketing tool.  This new love affair with the Beach Boys soon ended after the non-release of Smile in 1967, however, but that’s a different story. [23]

All this shows that critical celebrations of Pet Sounds depended not simply on properties of the recording but also on the institutional forces shaping its initial reception.  The release of this particular recording coincided with a time of flux in the record industry, with the established teen market for rock making way for a new, ‘hip’ intelligentsia.  In America in particular, the institutional forces were not yet in place to allow acts such as the Beach Boys to successfully make the transition from ‘square’ surf band to ‘hip’ studio auteurs, although the rapturous reception of Pet Sounds in Britain suggests that these forces were perhaps better developed elsewhere.  Pet Sounds’ integration into a narrative of tragic genius and studio wizardry has been enabled by these same organised institutional forces, now firmly entrenched in both countries. The release of the Pet Sounds Sessions box set, without which I would have struggled to write this paper, not only demonstrates the undoubted mastery Wilson had of the technology at his disposal, but also the success that the institutions have finally had of creating a market for this recording.   

Notes

 1. George Martin interviewed in ‘The Making of Pet Sounds’ booklet from The Pet Sounds Sessions Produced by Brian Wilson Box Set, p123
2. Negus, Keith, Producing Pop: Culture and conflict in the popular music industry, Arnold, London, 1992, pp152-153
3.  Peterson, Richard A. & Berger, David G., ‘Cycles in Symbol Production: The Case of Popular Music’, American Sociological Review, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Apr 1975), pp158-173, pp167-168
4. Peterson & Berger, ‘Cycles in Symbol production’, pp166-167
5. Peterson, Richard A. & Berger, David G., ‘Entrepreneurship in Organisations: Evidence from the Popular Music industry’, Administrative Science Quarterly, 1971, pp97-107, p99
6. Peterson & Berger, ‘Entrepreneurship in Organisations’, pp98-101
7. Elliott, Brad, Surf’s Up! The Beach Boys on Record 1961-1981, Helter Skelter Publishing, London, 2003
8. Badman, Keith, The Beach Boys: The Definitive Diary of America’s Greatest band on stage and in the studio, Backbeat Books, San Francisco, 2004, p104
9. For a very detailed account of the recording of Pet Sounds, see Granata, Charles, L., Wouldn’t it be Nice: Brian Wilson and the Making of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, A Capella Books, Chicago, 2003
10. See The Beach Boys, The Pet Sounds Sessions Produced by Brian Wilson box set, Disc 1, track 13, Disc 2, tracks 1 and 2, and Disc 3, tracks 23 and 30 for various informative versions of Caroline, No that aided this description, as well as the accompanying booklet, ‘The Making of Pet Sounds’ for details of the recording methods used.
11. Granata, Wouldn’t it be Nice, pp186-188
12. Peterson & Berger, ‘Entrepreneurship in Organisations’, p100
13.  Hirsch, Paul M., ‘Processing Fads and Fashions: An Organisation-Set Analysis of Cultural Industry systems’, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 77, No.4 (Jan 1972) pp639-659, pp648-649
14. Hirsch, Paul M., The Structure of the Popular Music industry, Survey Research Center, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1969, pp34-36
15. Badman, The Beach Boys Diary, pp131-134
16. See The Pet Sounds Sessions box set, Disc 3, track 12
17. See The Pet Sounds Sessions box set, Disc 3, track 25
18. Early examples of such promo spots can be found in the Good Vibrations box set.
19. Granata, Wouldn’t it be nice, p187
20. The Pet Sounds Sessions box set accompanying booklet, pp18-19
21. Badman, The Beach Boys Diary, p120
22. Badman, The Beach Boys Diary, pp134-139
23. The events surrounding the Smile album are covered in depth in Priore, Dominic, The Story of Brian Wilson’s lost Masterpiece, Smile, Sanctuary Publishing Ltd, London, 2005

 

Bibliography


Badman, Keith, The Beach Boys: The Definitive Diary of America’s Greatest band on stage and in the studio, Backbeat Books, San Francisco, 2004

Elliott, Brad, Surf’s Up! The Beach Boys on Record 1961-1981, Helter Skelter Publishing, London, 2003

Granata, Charles, L., Wouldn’t it be Nice: Brian Wilson and the Making of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, A Capella Books, Chicago, 2003

Hirsch, Paul M., The Structure of the Popular Music industry, Survey Research Center, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1969

Hirsch, Paul M., ‘Processing Fads and Fashions: An Organisation-Set Analysis of Cultural Industry systems’, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 77, No.4 (Jan 1972) pp639-659

Negus, Keith, Producing Pop: Culture and conflict in the popular music industry, Arnold, London, 1992

Peterson, Richard A. & Berger, David G., ‘Entrepreneurship in Organisations: Evidence from the Popular Music industry’, Administrative Science Quarterly, 1971, pp97-107

Peterson, Richard A. & Berger, David G., ‘Cycles in Symbol Production: The Case of Popular Music’, American Sociological Review, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Apr 1975), pp158-173

Priore, Dominic, The Story of Brian Wilson’s lost Masterpiece, Smile, Sanctuary Publishing Ltd, London, 2005

Discography


The Beach Boys Good Vibrations: 30 years of the Beach Boys 5 CD Box set, Capitol, C2077778129424, 1993

The Beach Boys: The Pet Sounds Sessions (produced by Brian Wilson) 4 CD Box set, Capitol, 724383766222, 1996

The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds vinyl reissue, Capitol, SVLP 149, 1999
 

Filmography


Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile, 2004